A slice of life in translation

What is the worst thing since sliced bread? Or, to look at it another way, what is the best thing since sliced bread?

These questions are being asked in two polls being run by the Times Online and news.co.au. If you want to vote, you have to do so by tonight (UK time, 10 July); the winner(s?) will be announced tomorrow, Friday 11 July.

The catch? You can’t decide for yourself what is the worst or the best thing. You have to select from a list. The “worst” list is: Neighbours, reality TV, double-yellow lines, Sudoku “in the paper” (?), soy sausages, Crocs, loud ads on TV, sliced bread, the Health and Safety Executive and “fluoro” clothing. The “best” shortlist is: Victa lawnmower, World Wide Web, Penicillin (medical use), Penicillin (discovery), Sudoku (yes, “in the paper” again), the dishwasher, the Ute, Hills Hoist clothesline and Tim Tams (a chocolate biscuit).

According to the very limited information supplied by the Times, this shortlist was drawn up by news.co.au asking readers to nominate the best and worst Australian inventions. The Times implies that there has been a similar poll for “British” invention, but does not provide a link to that, so I wonder if this accounts for the eccentric nature of the two shortlists? I don’t think I’ll be voting, anyway, as it isn’t exactly hard to think of better or worse things than those provided in this rather superficial exercise. I have learned what annoys some people in Australia, though.

Titles as brand, genre-delimited

Via a link sent to me eons ago on the Internet timescale (about a month) by Dave Lull, I read a pertinent article in The Telegraph by John Sutherland about us “poor saps” who get hooked on a series because of a clever title motif. According to Mr Sutherland, the “signature title” is unique to the crime-fiction genre: other types of book have to make do with tomes such as the blurb to acquire interested readers. Crime-fiction readers, apparently, recognize a book not by its cover but by its title:

“John Harvey’s Resnick novels are instantly recognizable not because of any alliteration, but because in the dozen or so he’s written, there’s always a punchy epithet-noun title: Easy Meat, Still Water, Last Rites. Strong stuff. Harvey’s admirers (of whom I’m one) can spot a Resnick yards away.Why do authors of crime novels cultivate the signature title? Because they know how readers of crime novels operate. They’re addicts, poor saps. Like problem drinkers, they stick, loyally and insatiably, to their favourite tipple.’Make mine Mosley,’ they say, or ‘Siegel’, or ‘Harvey’. They want the same fix, time after time. ‘I’m here,’ the signature title shouts. ‘Another one by your old friend [fill in the blank]. Come buy, come buy.’ And we do.”

Well, of course he has a point. But only to a degree. For some writers, the title is the brand. (Sue Grafton’s alphabet and J D Robb (Nora Roberts) …in death being two obvious examples.) But journalistic licence has come into play also, that is for sure. Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is Black Tide, Bad Debts, etc — but Broken Shore is a standalone with an identical style to the title. (Unlike Harlan Coben, who keeps his titles cleanly separate for his Myron Bolitar series and his standalones.) J K Rowling’s “title brand” is “Harry Potter and the…….” – but is not genre-limited to us “poor saps”. And there are plenty of crime-fiction series that don’t go for the title brand: my recent find Helene Tursten goes for “Detective Inspector Huss”, “The Torso” and “The Glass Devil”, but there are many similar examples of series with unconnected titles – Michael Connelly started out with “Black Echo”, then “Black Ice”, but rapidly deviated into “brief but random”. I could go on and on, but I will stop, because my point is, the generalization does not work. Try this one: “some authors, whatever the genre, write a series and brand it via the title. Others do not. And yet other authors don’t write series.” This is not such a catchy premise, journalistically speaking. But it is more accurate.


Quantal components of fiction

Via Nigel Beale Nota Bene books, I like this elemental breakdown (by Mortimer J. Adler) of the pleasures of reading fiction. Thinking about a book in this way is intended to help objectify one’s reactions and to form a critical judgement of the work:

To what degree does the work have unity?

How great is the complexity of parts and elements which that unity embraces and organizes?

Is it a likely story, that is, does it have the inherent plausibility of poetic truth?

Does it elevate you from the ordinary semiconciousness of daily life to the clarity of intense wakefulness, by stirring your emotions and filling your imagination?

Does it create a new world into which you are drawn and wherein you seem to live with the illusion that you are seeing life steadily and whole?

Ruins of midnight; echoes from the dead

“A fast-paced, strong police-procedural in the tradition of Ed McBain or Peter Turnbull, Colin Campbell’s first novel THROUGH THE RUINS OF MIDNIGHT slips down a treat.”

That was my take on the book: for my complete review, see Euro Crime.

The other book I reviewed this week is a “bit special”, I think– the birth of a stellar talent. The author is Johan Theorin, the book ECHOES FROM THE DEAD. My Euro Crime review is up, and here is an extract:

“Julia’s gradual emergence into life and self-determination, caused by the therapy of the remote island, away from contemporary pressures, and her rediscovery of her own past via her father’s friends and acquaintances, are very moving. We wish for her to find some happiness in her life when she begins to take tentative steps towards romance with the local policeman Lennert, who turns out himself to have a personal tragedy closely connected with Nils. I loved the character of Gerlof: his refusal to conform to expectations in his dealings with old age, infirmity and independence; his reflections of the changes on the island since the ship and fishing industry was at its height; and his stubborn ways of pursuing his investigations on his own terms, only revealing his thoughts when he is good and ready.”

But never mind all that, just read the book. It is brilliant.

Sunday Salon: The Score for pickup artists

TSSbadge3 My review of “The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man”,  by Faye Flam, appears today in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Why does someone who admits to sleeping with 200 women consider himself in need of techniques to find even more of them? That’s one of the questions asked by Ms Flam, who attends a “Seduction Boot Camp” to find out. From my review:

“The answer, according to Flam, lies in science. Underlying bizarre enterprises such as the Mystery Method are the biological reasons for the differences between men and women, and the ways in which the billions of species of animals, plants and microorganisms have adapted to reproduce and survive. Flam follows up this thesis with an idiosyncratic whistle-stop tour of biology. Evolution of the sexes, the Y (male) chromosome, peacock tails, monkey behavior, and more are all breezily described in a framework of analogies with pornography, fidelity, homosexuality, and many other variants on male-female (or same-sex) human relations.”

You can read some of the lurid examples that Ms Flam has collected in the full review. My verdict? The book is a funny, light-hearted read, but not a scientifically robust document ;-).
(Archived version of the review is here.)

Sunday Salon: Friendfeed reading group

TSSbadge3 For a few weeks, I have been checking out FriendFeed, a newish service which is easy to use: you can do lots of things, for example post links to articles you’ve read to share with others, and say whether or not you liked them, too, if you want. In addition, the user interface sure beats the commenting system on most blogging platforms, as once you are a member of FriendFeed (a Google application) you don’t have to authenticate yourself every time you want to comment on someone’s blog post, or use anti-spam codes (which often take several goes to get right, if your eyes are like mine). As well as posting links and commenting on them, you can import your blog and other Internet subscriptions (eg Twitter, Flickr) into FriendFeed, so all your related Internet activity is in one place.

FriendFeed also features “rooms”, for people who share interests. I have just set up a room for people who like reading crime and mystery fiction. If this sounds like you, please do check it out*; I hope you will join the group. I look forward to seeing you there for some discussions about books, questions related to the genre, and so on.

Friendfeed crime and mystery fiction group (click on the link).

* But you won’t be the first: Norm, of Crime Scraps and of legendary detective skills, gets the prize for first to spot the group, about 10 seconds after I set it up.

Andrew Taylor on writing the opposite sex

Returning to the theme of an earlier discussion, that of the creation of female protagonists by male authors, I was led by Sharon Wheeler to this interview of Andrew Taylor at Penguin blog:

…..”if you’re a man who wants to write women characters who are even halfway plausible, you have to listen to what women say. Real women. This is true in two senses. First, and most obviously, you have to listen to how women talk among themselves, when men either aren’t there or are somehow part of scenery. At my Pilates class, for example, I am sometimes the only man among ten women. At first they were a bit wary of me, then I became a sort of token male, then a mascot like Paddington Bear, and now they don’t really notice me as long as I keep my mouth shut.”

After a slight wobble in which Mr Taylor describes an incident in which he heard three “highly intelligent women” talking about painting their toenails (if he thinks this is typical, is this insulting to the women or the toenails? 😉 )*, he makes the point that women’s conversation is in the conditional mode – making suggestions and being prepared to change position – whereas men assert to each other. (Or, as Mr Taylor puts it: “Men tend to speak only when they feel they have something to say, not that it’s always worth listening to.”)

There are further points about the difficulties of writing from the point of view of the sex opposite to the author’s, because of the parallel universes which men and women inhabit. Men written by women tend to be very sensitive, writes Mr Taylor, quoting Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Highsmith (he could equally well have given contemporary examples such as Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Anne Cleeves, Karin Fossum), but men writing about women tend to focus on the external appearance. Maybe there is a bit of wish-fulfillment in both situations.

The interview is worth a read, especially for its end (who can he mean?!). Obviously, one can’t generalize about the personalities of protagonists across the board; but it is clearly a bit of a minefield for a writer not only to create a protagonist of the opposite gender, but to make that protagonist seem convincing to readers who share the gender being portrayed.

*I do not recall ever having had a conversation with other women, or indeed men, about painting toenails.

Asking the tough questions

Via Books, Inq., I read a stimulating ‘Outpost’ by Timothy Egan in the celebratory 4 July New York Times, with the title Save the Press. It is a good, strong article, lamenting the recent cruel cutbacks in the US newspaper industry (made, as Frank Wilson in his Books, Inq. commentary says, to keep stock prices high rather than to cut waste or more efficiently allocate resources), paradoxically at a time when Internet readership of newspapers and other news media is rapidly increasing.

Of course, as Timothy Egan writes, it isn’t a paradox, because nobody has learned to make money out of publishing on the Internet (yet?). Compared with print, online advertising revenues are small, despite increasingly infuriating attempts to force users to witness ever-more clever tricksy flashing, rolling objects obscuring what we are trying to read or even access. When will they learn that this kind of thing is expensive to produce and increasingly counterproductive as far as user uptake is concerned?  

Whether a newspaper, magazine or scientific journal, it costs a lot of money to produce quality content. That point may seem self-evident to you, as it does to me, but it is not self-evident to everyone. Newspapers are strange hybrids, but they are a heck of a lot better than a bland, auto-generated alternative that is not going to get anywhere near the true story. As Susan Sullivan says in her succinct comment to the New York Times piece, “Someone has to ask the tough questions and be paid to do it.” There are lots of other comments at the New York Times site, some of them quite good — perhaps this is an effect of publication on 4 July, or maybe it is always like that. But to return to the point, as Timothy Egan puts it:

“What’s the alternative — the National Public Radio model? It’s possible that some civic-minded nonprofits will end up owning one or two of the nation’s great papers, and operating them as trusts, hands off. But that’s a limited solution, fraught with problems of control and flexibility, and it won’t keep reporters at city hall in Sioux Falls or the statehouse in Santa Fe. Another response is goodbye, and so what. Look at the auto industry numbers from this week, with General Motors slouching toward bankruptcy. Besides, there’s plenty of gossip, political spin and original insight on sites like the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post — even though they are built on the backs of the wire services and other factories of honest fact-gathering. One day soon these Web info-slingers will find that you can’t produce journalism without journalists, and a search engine is no replacement for a curious reporter. And just how much do most contributors at the The Huffington Post make? Nothing! “Not our financial model,” as the co-founder, Ken Lerer famously said. From low pay to no pay — the New Journalism at a place that calls itself an Internet newspaper.”

Are you reading, Henry?

Via Brave New World blog: Private detectives are being used by Norfolk County Council to track down unpaid fines for overdue library books. “It is reported [by The Telegraph] that library users in Norfolk alone have over the last six years paid £1.4m in fines for overdue books.”

Table of the elephants

Chemifant%20small Via The Great Beyond, here is a picture by Emily Unell of what is inevitably called the chemical elephant, who lives in Washington, DC, outside the American Chemical Society building (where else? The National Zoo?)

The elephant was decorated with pictures of elephants depiciting the periodic table of the elements by the students of Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts, back at the turn of the century (;-) ). From a Chemical & Engineering News account at the time: “While some depictions are chemically accurate–such as nitrogen, which shows a rooted elephant drawing nitrogen from the soil–others are more a play on the names–for example, the masked Lone Ranger atop a rearing white elephant representing silver.”

See The Great Beyond post for more links to elementania (but not elephantania).